Fetterman, Flashing a Sharper Edge, Keeps Picking Fights With the Left

Fetterman, Flashing a Sharper Edge, Keeps Picking Fights With the Left

Senator John Fetterman was hard to miss, lumbering down an empty hallway in a Senate office building dressed in his signature baggy gym shorts and a black hoodie. So when Stevie O’Hanlon, an environmentalist and organizer from Chester County, Pa., spotted him recently, she took the opportunity to question her home-state senator about a pipeline in her community.

Mr. Fetterman’s reaction was surprisingly hostile. Raising his phone to capture the confrontation on video, the senator began ridiculing her.

“I didn’t expect this!” Mr. Fetterman said, feigning excitement. “Oh my gosh!”

As Ms. O’Hanlon politely pressed him on what she called his “change of heart” on the issue of the local pipeline, which he had previously opposed, Mr. Fetterman pulled faces of faux concern until he stepped onto an elevator and let the closing door end the interaction.

Ms. O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the progressive Sunrise Movement, was stunned.

“I’ve talked to Republicans who are much friendlier than that,” she said in an interview, after a clip of the interaction circulated widely on social media. “The person that we voted for is not the person who mocks constituents when they bring up concerns.”

Ms. O’Hanlon is not the only one wondering who Mr. Fetterman has become. Since last fall, the first-term Democratic senator from Pennsylvania has undergone a significant change in political persona. He routinely takes aim at the left wing of his party that he once courted — and appears to enjoy the spasms of anger he produces because of it, as well as the strange new respect he commands from right-wing media outlets that once dismissed him as a vegetable and lobbed sexist attacks at his wife.

Mr. Fetterman’s sharpest break with the left has been on the Israel-Hamas War. A firm backer of Israel before the war, he decided early in the conflict that he would offer unconditional support for Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He has relentlessly hewed to that stance, at times provocatively.

But there have been other notable differences. He has taken a hawkish stance on immigration, calling the surge in migration across the United States border with Mexico “a crisis.” He has broken with President Biden on energy policy, condemning his decision to pause approval of new liquefied natural gas exports to allow time to study the impact on climate change.

A stubborn contrarian by nature, Mr. Fetterman’s political brand has always been quirky, irreverent and at times frustrating to ideological purists on the left. His political move is to loudly — and sometimes obnoxiously — own an issue once he stakes out his position. As lieutenant governor, he flew marijuana legalization and L.G.B.T.Q. rights flags from the balcony of his office after Republicans banned unauthorized flags in the building.

But those who have observed his recent transformation also describe a shift in demeanor by Mr. Fetterman, who has begun to express himself in more caustic, sometimes hostile ways.

As he has morphed into a different kind of politician than anyone expected him to be, Mr. Fetterman has lost some of the top advisers who helped get him where he is today — the ones who guided him through a turbulent Senate campaign and debilitating health episodes, including a life-threatening stroke before he was elected and a six-week hospitalization just after he arrived in the Senate when he was treated for clinical depression.

Mr. Fetterman’s longtime political adviser, Rebecca Katz, the person he spoke with first in the morning and last at night through his 2022 Senate campaign and who has been at his side since 2015, has recently moved on.

His first Senate chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, who kept him connected to the outside world during his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, quietly resigned last month, taking on a role as an outside adviser. Three top press liaisons have left his office, including Joe Calvello, his communications director and a close aide who had been with him since the 2022 campaign. (Despite the high-level departures, Mr. Fetterman’s office has less turnover overall than average for a Senate office.)

Some on the left have begun to be more public about their frustration with Mr. Fetterman. When a House Republican insulted a Democrat’s physical appearance at a recent hearing, prompting a rowdy exchange, Mr. Fetterman weighed in online, ridiculing the entire scene, writing: “In the past, I’ve described the U.S. House as ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’ Today, I’m apologizing to ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’”

Liberals were outraged that he appeared to be equating his fellow Democrats’ behavior with that of Republicans. Annie Wu, who worked on Mr. Fetterman’s campaign, responded with her own post: “In the past, I’ve described the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race as one where we voted for a candidate with empathy and character. Today, I’m apologizing to everyone who also believed that was the case.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, who had been involved in the verbal fracas, responded with a post suggesting Mr. Fetterman was a bully.

“I have no comment on that,” said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Mr. Fetterman in 2022, when asked on Thursday about Mr. Fetterman’s shift in persona. “It’s up to Pennsylvanians.”

Mr. Fetterman declined to be interviewed for this article. But he is perhaps the least revealing person to interrogate about his evolution, often claiming that if anyone had been paying close enough attention to him, they would have seen that this is the guy he has always been.

Mr. Fetterman has for years had a complicated relationship with the left, challenging its purity tests while championing some of its causes. During his Senate campaign in 2022, he claimed he had always supported fracking, even though in the past he had said he would “never” support the industry. That year, he also told Jewish Insider that he would always be pro-Israel and “lean in” to strengthening the security of the Jewish state.

Former staff members and supporters suggest there is more at play, both personally and politically. Mr. Fetterman, who swore off social media, and news in general, after his hospitalization for depression, for a time relied on staff to curate a package of clips that kept him up to speed on what he needed to know. But his return to work and sharp break with the left has coincided with a distinct shift to the right in his media diet; he sometimes appears sucked into a vortex dominated by social media, The New York Post and Fox News, where for the first time in his political career, he is receiving approving coverage.

Those who have worked with Mr. Fetterman also suggest that his transformation may be calculated, and that he is carving out what he thinks is a more sustainable and winning lane for himself as a Democrat. Politically, his repudiation of the left has benefited the senator, whose popularity in Pennsylvania polls has increased. A recent Times/Siena poll showed that he has a 48 percent approval rating there, up from 44 percent last October — substantially higher than Mr. Biden, at 41 percent.

“The left should welcome it,” said Rick Wilson, the anti-Trump Republican strategist. “His position in the center left is much more viable in an ongoing political way than the idea of John Fetterman chanting ‘from the river to the sea.’ I don’t think that’s where most Americans’ heads are at. The left should welcome watching something that works.”

He has become a sought-after headliner at state party gatherings across the country: in the past few months, he has been invited to speak at Democratic Party events in Des Moines, Iowa; Reno, Nevada; Broward County, Florida; as well as events in Texas, Wyoming and conferences for the machinists, the teamsters and the realtors unions.

But that rise in popularity has also meant trampling on a political brand he cultivated for years. On the campaign trail, he positioned himself as a champion of the underdog and highlighted his association with Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont he supported for president in 2016. Now, he proudly rejects the label “progressive.”

Mr. Fetterman has been savaged for his uncompromising position on Israel by left-wing activists who feel betrayed. Protesters have staked out his district offices and begun referring to him online as #GenocideJohn.

Even as longtime, staunch Democratic supporters of Israel like Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, have criticized Mr. Netanyahu and called for new elections, Mr. Fetterman has enjoyed tripling down on his support not just for Israel but for any action Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government takes. He has argued that America should back whatever decisions the Israeli government makes in trying to wipe out Hamas, placing himself at the forefront of his party’s divide on Israel even though he lacks a deep familiarity with the region.

Mr. Fetterman was asked in a Fox News appearance in early May whether he supported Israel going into Rafah, the southern Gaza city where hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled in the war. He responded: “I follow Israel on that. They would know the situation more than I do.”

He also criticized Mr. Biden’s decision to pause an arms shipment to Israel amid the dispute, saying: “I don’t think we should be withholding any kind of munitions. I have no conditions. I never have. And I can’t imagine I ever will.”

Pressed a week ago on his support for Israel, he told CNN: “If someone is very much supporting the pro-Palestinian view, that’s fine, it’s reasonable. I just decided to be on the side for Israel on that.”

When Republicans invited Mr. Netanyahu to address them virtually in a closed-door conference meeting earlier this year, Mr. Fetterman asked if he could sit in. (He was turned down.)

The stance has earned praise from pro-Israel groups in the United States and even the grudging respect of some conservatives. Next week, he is set to be honored at commencement for Yeshiva University, which called him a “hero of Israel” for his unwavering support of the Jewish state.

“He ran as a progressive in a very polarized election cycle,” said Nathan Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “There’s almost an expectation that new and rising members of the progressive wing are going to be in varying degrees unfriendly to Israel. For Fetterman to come in and be so resolute and look at it as a black-and-white issue of morality is both surprising and very much appreciated.”

Mr. Fetterman’s supporters note that he has figured out a way to detach himself from the left while still supporting the Democratic agenda. He rejects comparisons to senators like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona or Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who have positioned themselves as independent centrists by at times blockading major party priorities. Despite all of his rhetoric, Mr. Fetterman so far has voted like a reliable Democratic foot soldier.

On domestic policy, he is largely still holding the line on progressive values. Mr. Fetterman wields legislative power foremost as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s panel on food and nutrition, which oversees the food stamp program SNAP. In that role, he has drawn a hard line against any cuts to SNAP in the farm bill, which is due to be reauthorized this year.

At the same time, he has teamed up with Republicans, including onetime adversaries. He joined Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on a bill to limit social media in schools and on an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would prohibit the sale of crude oil from the U.S. petroleum reserve to foreign adversaries.

On the campaign trail in 2022, Mr. Cruz made fun of Mr. Fetterman after his stroke for a shaky performance at a debate, where his auditory processing issues made it difficult for him to speak and he greeted the audience by telling them, “Good night everybody.”

“In honor of John Fetterman,” Mr. Cruz said as he took the stage at an event in Tennessee not long after, “I suppose I should start by just saying, ‘Good night!’”

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